Sunday, May 19, 2019

Changing the Game Part 2: Maintaining the Players


Looking back at the last two years in Gamification, there is one big issue that I need to deal with; keeping ALL of my learners engaged. In 2017, my district adopted a new science curriculum. The goal of our first year was to be faithful to the program and put mechanics over the top of the the lessons, like power up cards, secret missions and a leaderboard. The game and the curriculum went hand in hand, making this very successful.


This year, new initiatives really kept Tom (@tank2023 on twitter) and I from fine tuning the game. The things we did last year still worked, but an abundance of new focuses kept us from fully capitalizing on early excitement. A big one was that we tried to split time with social studies and science which ended up being too much of a balancing act. This loss of focus for us led to a number of students disengaging from the experience.

All was not lost, as many students still loved to check out our headquarters site regularly, keep watch on the leaderboards and use power up cards when possible.Those experiences were still worth while and students enjoyed great moments. It just wasn’t what I was hoping for with our second group to complete the year. I suppose that there is a lesson here about quality over quantity and not extending yourself too far (a lesson I feel reminded of every so often), but there is a more learner focused question that I want to set my sights on. How do I keep more students engaged with the game to grow the excitement?

Step 1: All students moving forward all the time
One thing that caused drop off for some students was a lack of progress. Most of the experience points earned by students was based on secret missions, which were project completed in extra time or outside of class. I am proud that most students would complete one or two missions in a year, a few (20ish) went really far and did multiple missions per unit. However, the larger number would complete a few and lose interest. I want all players to gain points every week and keep their adventure in space going all year round.


Being a testing year, there are a lot of vocabulary words for my students to learn. So every week we will have a vocabulary game to play so that students can get these words down. Challenges will vary from a Kahoot to building representations out of various materials. They will be designed to be quick and decisive. This is dual purposed. One, I want it to be something students can be excited about each week. Two, I do not want to give this particular activity a lot of time out of class or afterwards for me. I want to be able to see the points quickly and pop them in. Quicker feedback and faster impact to the game.


To score, I am going to use a Mario Kart system of points. Top players will receive 25 points. Then one less for each place all the way down to 12, which all students will receive after 14th place. This weekly rewarding of XP based on a fun game is one hook to keep students involved. As an additional piece, a few weeks in I plan to introduce Michael Matera’s (@mrmatera on twitter) concept of the Wall of the Fallen. Students can challenge one another for extra points. The catch, of course, being that if you lose, you are unable to be part of a challenge again. There will be ways to avoid the wall or to get off the wall based on a characters powers (more on that in a later update).  This should add a level of excitement to the weekly game.



We will also have in class events that will reward XP. Whether it be an activity that students will complete or an encounter with something in space, students will have regular opportunities to grow. I am looking at a couple different inspirations for this. Mostly how different role playing games add experience points. Then, as I get into planning out the units more, those encounters will start to take shape. So, I guess more on this over the summer and into fall. Except for the crisis deck, I can not wait to tell you about the crisis deck.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Changing the Game Part 1: What Lies Ahead


Over the past 2 years, my science class has been gamified. Our superhero themed class sparked some great stories and unforgettable moments. Some things have worked like a charm, others, not so much. However, if there is anything that I am proud of it is keeping it going for two years. Working with my teaching partner, Tom, to build it was awesome and we put a lot of ideas out there for our kids to enjoy. That said we have had our fair share of obstacles and distractions. This year, a year where I had hoped to implement a real narrative was run over by a push for mastery learning (which was super great), the sudden inclusion of a science/social studies split (something that we asked for, but wasn’t as great) and me participating in the Nintendo Labo classroom program (something that was awesome but time consuming). These things split our focus this year and kind of took away from the 4th Grade Heroes experience.


Then, just before Spring Break, I got the news that I would be looping with my class and without my best teaching friend, Tom. Admittedly, I was disappointed to be separated from someone who has grown to be one of my best friends. Then something funny happened as I realized looping meant starting over with my game. A fresh slate. A chance to look at everything in the last two years and start over. And suddenly, my mind just started to run...or better yet fly in a different direction. We have not even reached the end of the year and I am knee deep into where I am going for next year. Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty to be done to send these kids off right. They have worked hard and they deserve the best ending I can give them. That said, I am growing more excited about next year all the time.


I have a new teammate, with emphasis on NEW. Ms. Hagemeier is wrapping up her first year and her energy is exciting. I have never gotten to be the older teacher in a group where I am working directly with them, so my mission with her is to help her find herself as she grows and incorporate as much of her style into this as we can. I also need to not overwhelm her. I have a tendency to do that when I get excited, and as I said, I am really excited.


My other major goal is to tear down everything that did not work in 4th Grade Heroes and build on the lessons and failures. It is my intention to document this process. More for my own self reflection, but if others can read it and grow then we all gain. Whatever I create during the process I intend to share freely. I hope that you enjoy this trip to the stars with me.


If you hadn’t picked up on it yet, the new theme will be space sci-fi. Here is a look at our new logo. I am really proud of it.



Sunday, June 3, 2018

Choose Your Own Adventures



When I get good ideas that I love and want to use in my classroom they go on a bucket list document I have on Google Keep. From there, I try to think of when it would be realistic to implement this idea and how it could be done. Will it work this school year or is it something that needs to be constructed over the summer? Ever since last summer, I have been inspired by PlayStation’s line of games called PlayLink. These are a series of games where players use a digital device (a phone or an iPad) to control what is happening. I have played two of these games and I really like both of them. So on my Crazy Ideas list sits two different crazy ideas. One is a cooperative assessment for teams of 2, where students make choices as they go that will affect what is happening later. The other is a review with branching paths where students play together with secret agendas of their own to complete as they go.


As the year was coming to a close, I decided to try a lesser version of both of these ideas in one activity. I created a math review akin to a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, like the ones we read as kids. I made it in Google slides with the intent of presenting it through PearDeck. I set a goal to have students work through 10 total problems whichever path they chose. With the branching path there are 14 total problem based slides in the presentation. It branches three times and students choices impact the problems they will complete, but they always come back together. We would complete the activity as a class with the students providing answers in PearDeck and receiving chips if they are correct.


To help organize which path is which, I placed a colored square or triangle in the bottom corner of each slide. Each slide also has a title in the upper left corner for linking purposes. I linked each slide in the presention to go where it was supposed to, but found that when I presented it in PearDeck, that those links would not work. Momentarily frustrating. Then I remembered that through the PearDeck dashboard feature I can jump from slide to slide as the story unfolds. This made the colored shapes even more handy, as students voted I could just progress by finding the next slide with that color.




Choice slides were represented by multiple choice questions. In PearDeck, this is represented with a Bar Graph I can share with students. Problem slides were a mix of draggable slides, short answer slides and drawing slides. I would keep track of the answers on the dashboard (which is on my phone) and reward chips as answers came in. This also allowed me to have students go back and check if needed.


As a gamer and movie fan, I really enjoy the Uncharted games and, of course, Indiana Jones. So the story is themed as a jungle adventure. I looked around online to find different problems that went with our content then modeled many of my problem slides after those. There was one toward the end that I screen grabbed from common core sheets, I was pressed for time and wanted students to find missing angles. I will likely fix this over the summer. After getting the problems together, I wrote tiny pieces of narrative to connect them. It is not Shakespeare, but it quite literally gets them from A to B.


Being the end of the year, I picked a Friday to try it out. I played the Uncharted soundtrack the entire time. Each student had a sheet of paper and signed into the PearDeck presentation, I ran the presentation on my laptop to see answers and used my Chromecast as a second screen to read the slides as I walked. I put a large number of Poker chips that I borrowed from Tom in a satchel. We started by going through the rules of the game. I explained that students could not go ahead, we would take slides as a team and make choices based on popularity. Each right answer would be worth two chips unless you were the first few answers in, then you would get three. This was purposefully ambiguous and designed to discourage cheating. Corrected answers would be worth one.

We began our adventure with a simple choice; right or left. With no real hint to go on, just make a choice. The students got their first problem and answered it. Thanks to the PearDeck dashboard, I was able to see their responses quickly and reward them for their work. If they were incorrect, I was able to redirect them just as fast. Then another choice and we were off. It took about three slides to click with every student and they ate it up. “Mr. Renard, I got it!”, could be heard all around the room, especially from my most competitive boys and girls. Some struggled a bit with harder questions. A couple had a wandering eye.


During the adventure, I also placed one or two other choices such as what equipment to grab or which boat to choose. Each of those decisions would affect later slides. This was the cause of much discussion and allowed my more social kids to work their magic. At one point when they reached a slide where they were attacked by a giant spider with three long division equations to solve, one boy shouted out, “See, I told y’all we should have taken the stupid torches, but No. You all wanted the rifles.” Suddenly, it was like we were in an action adventure film. It was my favorite moment of the day.


During the entire adventure most of the students had worked to keep up with eachother’s chips and where they were in comparison. In the end, we had 1 winner and two that tied for second place. The activity was a success and I have it locked in to review for next year.



The good: The students loved it! I was aiming to please all the different types of players that my students were and it definitely did that. There was excitement, talking, competition, choice, collaboration and most of all, 100% engagement. Every kid answered every question. It also changed the entire feel of the room. For one day, math class felt much more like a board game. This was the equivalent of a ten question spiral review quiz and you never would have known it if you had walked in.


The bad: It took a while to put it together. A few years ago, I got some good advice about putting new activities together. The teacher told me to look at prep time versus activity time. Admittedly, my endurance for that advice is greater than most, but it pushed my limits, as there was a lot more trial and error than I thought there might be. I spent a lot of time linking slides to find out that this doesn’t work in PearDeck. That said, I learned a lot about PearDeck’s capabilities and saw a few ways I could have saved time if  and when I make another adventure like this one.


The other thing that I need to solve is how to completely curb cheating. Whenever there is competition, there will be one or two who resort to looking for help whether it is offered or not. I need to come up with a solution.


Modifications: There, as always, are a couple of errors that I need to fix. It was a lot of slides and errors happen. Additionally, I needed a clipboard with my role and 10 boxes each. Just to quickly keep track of who got chips and how many. I don’t think anyone took advantage of me dispensing rewards, but this would help me stay organized. Lastly, make sure you have enough currency for everyone and then some. Due to end of year scheduling, I took on a few (6) extra students at the last second and had to pull out base ten cubes for backup.


In the end, it was a great activity and I learned a ton doing it. I will do this adventure next year and likely build one or two more. I also have aspirations to do a room transformation for this activity, but I may recruit some help. Help is good.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Day Protractors Took Over In Science



This year two big things happened in my science class that have fundamentally changed the way I teach. Tom and I went all in on a gamified classroom. We have leaderboards, power up, teams and a very loose narrative. Then in November, I was introduced to Peardeck, an interactive presentation program that I like so much that I will be presenting on it at USM Summer Spark conference in Milwaukee this summer.

As part of the game Tom and I run, students can earn Power Up cards. These are class rewards, incentives for amazing work in and out of the classroom. They allow kids to choose their seats, read with friends, listen to music during assignments and other things students love to do. Every unit we try to introduce a few new ones to keep class fresh and exciting. The results vary. Sometimes kids will use them, other times they save them because they like collecting them.

After Peardeck became a staple of our rooms, we decided to base a few cards around impacting how other groups would need to respond to questions in Peardeck. One card impacted how many words students could use to respond. That one is fun, especially since it includes a dice roll when played: instant suspense. Today, though, I want to share the story of Mr. Mxyzptlk (yeah, don’t ask me how to pronounce it either. I likely butcher it all the time). The character is a villain in the Superman comics who is known for trickery. When we designed the card, we wanted to make it have interesting and tricky results. Here is what we came up with:


The card has been played a couple times now. Once the student accidentally chose a word that worked out really easily for the group it was played on. The second time, well, it was blog worthy. The child raised his hand. “Mr. Renard, are there a lot of Peardeck questions today?”

I knew why he was asking, gave him a big smile and said, “Yep.”

He reached into his inventory (a 9 baseball card plastic page) and produced Mr. Mxyzptlk. “That group,” he said pointing at the next table over, “must use the word 'protractor' in each of their responses for this lesson.” There was some laughter around the room and a few nerves coming from the table that had been targeted. I explained that they were not allowed to just throw the word in at the end, but it needed to be used in a way that made sense. Here are some of the results.




Other examples included, ‘When looking at the sides of this canyon, we could use a protractor to measure the angles’ and ‘Rocks are hard to break down and it takes water a long time to do it. Not protractors though, they break if you step on them or bend them.’ Not all the answers worked as you can see. When the answer did not work, the player of the card was rewarded.


What really made this special was the way the other students got so excited to read what the target team wrote and how they worked 'protractor' into their responses. The lesson carried into a second day and one of the kids told me that he had thought about ways to use the word when he went home the night before. It never ceases to surprise me how little tweaks like this make my students more creative and excited. It can really take a normal day and make it memorable. I would encourage you to add a monkey wrench to something simple in your classroom and see what happens.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

When It Doesn't Go Well



Looking back on what I have written so far it would be easy to think that everything just works. However that is most certainly not true. Every great educational book that I have read talks about creative and innovative lessons that fall flat and I have had my fair share. So this is a small sub category that I am going to start called WIDGW, or When It Doesn’t Go Well. Here I am going to talk about the things that I am going to use again, but before I do I need to rework it a bit.


I am starting with what was one of my favorite new things this year that I totally miscalculated: A Scooby Doo Addition and Subtraction unit. It was my second unit here at my new school and I just didn’t feel like I was myself yet. Looking back at it now, my family and I were living with our in-laws, I had just launched a gamified science class, I was adjusting to a new school, state, and life. I probably should have taken everything lesson by lesson, but I dream big.


I looked at what was too come and I wanted to make something more out of what was a pretty straight forward set of lessons. I made a haunted house where the kids could see our progress from one lesson to the next. Then I created a deck of what I called ‘Zoinks’ cards. Each card was themed after a classic Scooby Doo monster from the old cartoon. During lessons we would pull cards and the cards would each have a fun effect. One might ask them to write every odd number in their sums and differences in green color pencil, another forced them to rewrite their answers in expanded form. I set up my lessons in a pretty simple way so that the game element would be the piece that made it fun.


The haunted mansion I drew for the unit.


For the first few lessons, it worked. The kids were enjoying the challenges. Some of them would act so dramatic when it was time to pull a card. They wanted to do it though. They all also wanted to be the ones who moved our marker to the next area of the haunted house. So, what went wrong? In a word: timing.


Do to some things that we did at the beginning of the year that are positive to do, we were about a week and half behind on our pacing guide. During this unit, I found out that a lot of teachers in our district combine concepts in this unit to make up some of that time. Additionally, because of the way I had designed some of the cards it was making students take longer to complete certain tasks, which in turn would cause us to draw out lessons into multiple days. This would mean that we wrapped up lessons early the next day before starting the next day. In that rushed feeling, I would forget to have someone advance the Scooby Gang to the next room. Between combining lessons and throwing in preparation for the final assessment my well laid plan totally feel apart around me.


An example of one of the cards.


In the end, the students did well with the material and we were where we needed to be in terms of content and pacing. However, Scooby and the gang did not make it through the mansion. Also, despite the excitement that it generated, we only got about two thirds of the way through our Zoinks cards. A few of the kids asked why we stopped with the different pieces and I told them that I was sorry that it didn’t work out.


If I am being honest, the hardest part about innovation in the classroom is usually balancing time and pacing. This is especially true in math, where pacing guides loom like the forbidding legendary ghost of a pirate captain which is actually just a millionaire who is trying to scare off well meaning teachers with aspersions to make things awesome.


It is possible to do exciting and engaging lessons, it just takes work, planning and time. Scooby and the gang will rise again next year if I am teaching math. They will be more equipped to get through a renovated haunted house. The villains will be lurking in the shadows to complicate matters. Kids will probably be pretty excited excited again. For right now though, this all finds itself in an article subtitled: When It Doesn’t Go Well.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

5 Things as We Turn to March



So, here are five things that I thought about or that happened this week. Most of which had to do with school.

1. It was group picture week. This may be my favorite school based picture ever. Complete with photobomb by the photographer.


2. No matter the amount of work and effort you are putting into a fixed path, sometimes straying from it can lead to magic. Here’s to Ms. Burkhart.




3. Those moments you know that they are thinking of you. This week one student made me a Nintendo Switch out of modeling foam. Thursday I got a random hug from another on my way into school. Then on Friday a student informed me that he convinced his parents that he couldn’t leave for a trip a half hour early because we had a delay and he didn’t want to miss my class.



4. Boys are still weird and this girl’s drawing depicts it in the most accurate fashion possible.



5. As difficult as it can be to have my kids at my school at times, moments like sitting with my daughter in her new dress on picture day make it worth it.





Thursday, March 1, 2018

Crossing Line For Learning



So, when I started teaching I had come fresh from college and being part of improv comedy. I slid right into a sage on the stage role. I joked for a while that I was my students favorite cartoon character. Then, thanks to an amazing battle axe of a math specialist, I realized the strength in self discovery, especially in math and I shifted to more of a coach and less of the know it all.

That brings me to this activity. Over the days leading up to this activity we had learned how to measure angles using a protractor. The next step in the state of Ohio (and most core states) is to find missing angles in intersecting lines. I ventured onto Pinterest (something my wife laughs at me about because I used to be resistant to it) and found a wonderful activity where you put masking tape on tables and have students measure the angles. It also works out nicely with our districts push for flexible furniture. My whiteboard tables were perfect. This was just what I needed to establish the rules of finding missing angles. A quick trip to Target and $6 later I had a colorful combination of intersecting lines.

The kids were interested the moment that they came in the door that day. A few of them were sad to find out that it was not for science as they go to another teacher for math. At the beginning of class we took a few minute to review using protractors. Then I explained what I wanted them to do.


As we started the activity, I moved from table to table watching the students measure the angles and I waited. One boy said it first, “Mr. Renard, when I measure…” I cut him off giving him a smile and saying, “Not yet. Just wait.” He smiled understanding. From another table, “Mr. Renard, when I measure the angles…” Again, I held out my hand with a reassuring smile to stop the girl from finishing her sentence. “Hold that thought.” A minute of two later, from a third table. “Hey, angles add up to 180.” I moved over and said, “Huh, cool. Be ready to share.”


Finally, a young lady at my last table called me over and said “Mr. Renard, this angle and this angle are the same.” That's what I was waiting for. I called for my classes attention and asked them to gather around the table. Choosing to allow this last student to share what she had discovered in order to build her confidence, I encouraged her to share what she found with the class. “The angles that are across from each other are the same.”

“How can they be the same? They are separate angles.” I said.

“I mean they are equal.” Wording matters to me.

Exaggerated look. “Huh! Well, how about that? Did anyone else find anything?”

Another student. “Yeah, angles along the lines add up to 180 degrees.”

I looked at the work of one of the student and got wide eyed, “What sorcery is this?! Anyone else?”

Another young man, “Yeah, all of the angles add up to 360 degrees.”

Me, “Everytime?”

Another student, “I think so.” I gave them time to confirm this and watched a student or two see the direction things were going and make some changes by of a couple of degrees. The students all agreed. We copied down these new ‘rules’ on the board and students went back to finish up. Once each group was done they began personal assignments, but I couldn’t have scripted that conversation any better.


Looking back on it, I am mostly happy with everything. My students are getting better and better with just doing the crazy things that we do in class. I am really encouraged by their willingness to share their thoughts, even if they might be wrong. One thing that I noted to do next time I try the activity is to maybe take pictures or if time let students compare by doing a round two. Though the more I think about it, the trickier I think it would be.